Opinion: Second Look legislation can fix Michigan’s criminal legal system | Mich…

Opinion: Second Look legislation can fix Michigan’s criminal legal system | Mich…

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Cozine A. Welch, Jr. was sentenced to prison at age 17.

I was sent to prison in Michigan when I was just 17 years old in 1998. What started out as an argument and misunderstanding quickly turned into an altercation that ended in an exchange of gunfire. Nineteen years and nine months of my life were spent behind bars, shuffled around more than eight different prisons before I was ultimately released through parole.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that I grew up in prison. In essence, I was raised by the men sentenced to never get out of prison. They shared their wisdom and life experience with me, and they shaped the man I am today.

Given my firsthand experience with Michigan’s criminal legal system, I want to share some recommendations that could make our system more just and equitable — and our communities safer.

The first thing our state legislators should do before the end of the 2023 legislative session is pass the Second Look Sentencing Act. This bill would allow courts to reevaluate sentencing after incarcerated persons serve a certain amount of time in prison and no longer pose a risk to the community.

Given the repeated failures of Michigan’s criminal legal system, this legislation couldn’t be more necessary.

For example, more than 170 people (that we know of) have been found to have been wrongfully convicted in Michigan since 1989. These people have cumulatively lost 1,775 years of life. Think of all the birthdays, graduations, and valuable time lost over these years. The damage is incalculable.

It’s also worth pointing out that 63% of these people who were wrongfully convicted in Michigan were Black, and many of the convictions were originally obtained through cases of mistaken identification or false confessions.

To address all of these wrongful convictions, Michigan actually passed legislation in 2016, the Michigan Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act, designed to compensate people who were wrongfully convicted $50,000 for each year they spent in prison.

That fund is currently running out of money due to the overwhelming number of wrongful convictions in Michigan.

That’s shocking, but the problems with Michigan’s criminal legal system don’t stop there.

Michigan’s legal system relies on an outdated and unscientific view that brain development is complete at age 18 — and it sentences people accordingly. More than one third of those who have served at least 10 years in prison in Michigan were 25 years old or younger at the time of the crime. Approximately 5,000 people are serving life sentences in Michigan, and three quarters of them are ineligible for parole.

As a result of these harsh sentencing policies, Michigan has the fifth-largest population of people serving life without parole (LWOP) in the United States.

In other words, our state is handing down extreme sentences to young people whose brains are not yet fully developed. That is completely out of line with the latest science on adolescent development. A large body of neurobiological and adolescent developmental psychology research finds that late adolescents share more characteristics with children and teenagers than with adults.

I recognize this fact all too well. When I first went to prison at 17, I was scared. I saw a man assaulted with a mix of baby oil, sand, and gravel. I had never seen someone scream like that before. I was essentially a child, and I began lashing out at other incarcerated people because I thought it necessary to protect myself.

However, I continued to grow and learn while I was incarcerated — and it was the other people who were incarcerated with me who helped achieve that growth. They made sure I knew the rules and limitations of the prison environment and how to grow both within and beyond them. They passed down wisdom that I still remember and use in my daily life.

At the end of the day, you do what you are taught. I’m grateful that I was taught how to be a better person by the people who are incarcerated for life in Michigan’s prisons, and I believe many of them deserve a second chance.

My personal growth also led me to spend hours at the law library, studying my own case and helping others with theirs.

Others who are incarcerated, and those who have grown and matured while incarcerated for lengthy periods of time, should have the same chance I did.

Michigan’s legal system may be flawed, but we have a chance to correct some of those flaws with the Second Look Sentencing Act.

I urge legislators to pass the Second Look Sentencing Act and reform Michigan’s criminal legal system into one that is more humane, more just, and making all of us safer.

Cozine A. Welch, Jr. is a formerly incarcerated poet, community researcher, and educator. His written work has been published in The Michigan Quarterly Review, Plough Quarterly, the Periphery, and eleven consecutive volumes of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing, where he held the position of Managing Editor.

He is also former Executive Director of A Brighter Way, a nonprofit organization based in Washtenaw County, a Community Researcher for the University of Michigan Carceral State Research Project, as well as a former instructor of the Atonement Project and Theatre & Incarceration courses at the University of Michigan focused on restorative justice, reconciliation, atonement, and the role of the arts in healing and rehabilitation.

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